Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Feeling the therms
“This is the place where Budapest comes to chill out,” Laszlo, a banker in Pest, tells me. “many people come here to relax, but some come to do business deals, discuss politics, socialize, or meet members of the opposite sex – I even met my wife here!” he says with a glint in his eye. A visit to Budapest is not complete without a visit to one of its many marvelous bath houses. A leftover ‘gift’ from the time of the Turkish occupation, most Budapestites today could not imagine life without baths, and they form a vital part of the social life of the city. From the neo-baroque masterpiece that is the Szechenyi complex in the outskirts of Pest to the more basic Turkish style Kiraly Baths in Buda, there is something to suit everyone’s taste. There is even a world-famous club night in Szechenyi baths once a month; the so-called ‘sparty’ that is Cinetrip has gained fame and notoriety in equal measures in recent years, having started out as a relatively underground night in Rudas baths in the late 00's/early 10s. I decided to investigate all that the five best baths in Budapest have to offer, braving sub-zero temperatures, flip-flop-wearing, moustachio-ed middle-aged men with pot bellies and more speedos than you could shake a towel at, in search of the perfect bath….
Open daily 06.00-22.00. Address: Allatkerti korut 11-14, Budapest.
@ www.szechenyifurdo.hu / sparty booking: https://spartybooking.com/
Being the biggest and arguably the best (certainly the most popular) baths in Budapest, these are the first ones to make a bee-line for. Located out on the eastern fringes of the centre, close to Heroes’ Square and the City Zoo, this is really the ultimate bathing experience in Budapest, and, arguably, Europe – it is the largest medicinal bath on the continent. The first thing you notice about the Szechenyi baths is the stunning architecture. Neo-baroque, the pastel-yellow painted buildings were built in 1881, when they were known as the ‘Artesian Baths’; only completed in 1913, the sweeping colonnades and arches lend the whole complex a dignified, Habsburg feel which adds to the ambiance of the already relaxing baths. All walks of life come here to chat, bathe, socialize, flirt, do business. Some people even play chess here; I noticed a group of older gentlemen, up to their necks in steaming water, intently staring at a game in progress, oblivious to my taking pictures of them.
This is really a snapshot of Budapest society, and absolutely central to social life. Young, old, men, women, there are no social, sexual or age barriers here. Step inside the regal building and another world opens up; fifteen pools spread over several hundred square metres, countless steam rooms, saunas, freezing plunge pools… one sauna is 80 degrees Celsius – this is a sauna you want to visit sparingly. Only for the truly hardcore, I manage two minutes and run out of the door before my eyeballs burn, and leap into the freezing plunge pool. I spent a further few hours slipping contentedly from sauna to bath to steam room to plunge pool and the afternoon passes in a steamy haze of carefree relaxation and pleasant chat with friendly locals and tourists alike, before retiring to the bar to sip a pint of Szoproni beer, feeling as chilled out as I can remember feeling. I returned on a Saturday night to check out one of the thrice-monthly club nights here. Szechenyi takes on a completely different aspect by night. The famous 'sparties' that have taken place here for the past five years have grown into international clubbing events where thousands attend. The party was like nothing I had ever seen before: on entering, I was confronted by pounding techno, flashing disco lights, gyrating, bikini-clad bodies, fire-throwers, acrobats and DJ’s dressed in skimpy speedos and sunglasses. A night blurred by alcoholic excess in an environment where clubbing has rarely taken place in before, this level of bacchanalian revelry has to be seen to be believed, and yet seems completely in keeping with Budapest, where liberal attitudes prevail. “People come from all over Europe for these nights – they happily pay the 30 Euro entrance because they know this does not exist anywhere else” says Tomek, a Polish hipster who is traveling back to Krakow on the six a.m bus. “It’s just here”. I think he's right. Where else, after all, could it happen?
Bath Rating 9/10: A near-perfect bathing experience. Extremely social, fun and welcoming, it’s also the number one tourist choice. Truly, your visit to Budapest is not complete without a visit to this gem. The only thing against it is that it can get too busy for some, especially at weekends.
On the opposite side of the Danube (as are all of the remaining baths), Gellert is probably the most well-known after Szechenyi. It is housed in an impressive art nouveau palace right by the river, down the hill from Citadela. It’s one of the prettiest baths in Budapest – where else can you swim below a stained-glass atrium? Ornately decorated with beautiful mosaic tiles and regal pillars supporting high arched ceilings and marble balconies, Gellert can certainly claim to offer the most aesthetic of bathing experiences in Budapest, and its legendary curative thermal waters that flow from Gellert hill just above attract young and old alike for a healthy dose of relaxation. Like Szechnenyi, Gellert is open to both men and women, and offers co-ed bathing. I was treated to a rub-down and massage before embarking on the pools. Radio blaring Hungarian music, a monosyllabic, stern-looking guy got me to strip down and lie on a couch in a rather stark room. Twenty minutes of vigorous pummeling later, my back was left feeling a trifle sore, and I left wondering if it was worth the extra 15 Euros.
Slightly maze-like, the Gellert Baths are not straightforward to navigate, and all of the sign-posting is in Hungarian; this might not be a problem if the staff were a bit more helpful, but unfortunately they aren’t, and none spoke any English. Still, I had a pleasant swim in the massive pool, looking ridiculous with a blue plastic bag on my head (swimming caps compulsory), before heading to the steam baths and thermal waters to wind down. With only two pools – 38 and 42 degrees Celsius respectively – and one steam room, it’s far smaller than Szechenyi, and it’s also a lot less crowded. Indeed, one old man of about 80 had the freedom of the place to stretch his legs, pacing endlessly up and down (I surmised as some part of a health programme), wearing only a small apron to hide his modesty. A far cry from the sexy daytime nightclub vibe of Szechenyi, then, I thought as I headed out into the cool evening air and over the Danube to Pest for some refreshment and a bit more life. Still, a great experience nonetheless.
Bath Rating 8/10: Good for people wanting a quiet bath experience in very pleasant surrounds, and for health treatments. Not so good for meeting anyone. Also, far less bathing rooms than at Szechenyi, and no outdoor options.
Kiralyi, a bit further along the river and tucked away discreetly on a side-street, is a bit of an anomaly in the bath-culture of Budapest, in that it is not at all aimed at tourists, is a single-pool bath and has not been renovated. It’s the most Turkish in feel of all the baths in Budapest, and the oldest – built by Arslan, the Pasha of Buda, in 1565, it’s brickwork domes and arches take you back to Ottoman times. Mainly a men-only bath (though it does offer co-ed options too), this bath house does have somewhat of a reputation for being a gay hang-out, and your enjoyment of it may very well come down to how relaxed you are in a room full of naked men who appear to be checking each other out. It wasn’t this that made me feel a bit deflated, but the peeling paintwork, smelly toilets and slight lack of atmosphere in comparison to Szechenyi and Gellert. That said, the building itself is a wonderful piece of Ottoman-era architecture, and a reminder of the heritage that Budapest has to thank the Turkish occupation for. Most Hungarians would probably not see it that way of course. The facilities are a little worse for wear and could use some TLC, but after a somewhat daunting beginning, the hot pools were sublime. There was a language barrier with the attendant as we were assigned a changing "cabin", (more like phone booth) but after getting changed the hot soak in mineral water was worth it. I stayed until I was well pruned and relaxed. The crowd was a good mix, seniors, young couples, some gay men. Well worth the visit for non-tourist baths and more reasonable entrance fee.
Bath Rating 5/10: Less atmosphere and far less facilities, but maybe the most Turkish-feeling of all the baths in Budapest. Not so good for women, this is mainly a male-only preserve. Needs a bit of attention to the interior and can be smelly. Can also be a be a bit quiet.
A bit out of the way, tucked away in a quiet area at the north end of the Buda by the river, Lukacs is by far the most family-oriented bath house, and is a co-ed experience with a friendly and welcoming vibe. The bath, named after St Luke (Szt Lukacs Gyogyfurdo) is located close to the Margaret Island, a few min walk from Margaret Bridge on the Buda side with some Budapest hidden gems in its vicinity (16th century Turkish attractions, and a cave under the Buda hills called Szemlohegyi Cave). I had a fantastic foot and leg massage before doing the round of baths and pools – two heated outdoor swimming pools are augmented by six indoor thermal pools, ranging from 25 to 45 degrees. “We come here because it’s close to our home and we always meet our friends here,” Reka, an astonishingly attractive young student tells me. “It’s relaxed and we know everyone here.” People come here to cure their colds in the chamomile steam bath, or wrap their bodies in mineral-rich mud in the skin-treatment room. Although not on a par with the elegant surrounds of Szechenyi or Gellert, Lukacs is smart, clean, modern and very pleasant – a nice family option.
Bath Rating 6/10: Best for families or couples, this is very decent if inconveniently located. There isn't a whole lot to do here in terms of facilities, different pools or spas either
The Rudas Baths is a Turkish style bath built in 1560 during the Turkish Era. It is one of the oldest and most beautiful baths in the city and retains many of the key elements of a Turkish bath, exemplified by its dome and octagonal pool. The bath's thermal water is known for its healing powers making it a popular choice among tourists. In the past, Rudas Bath was exclusively for men, but today, it is open to both sexes on the weekend and there is a women-only day during the week as well. It is also the latest opening of all Budapest's bath houses; keeping its doors open till 4am on Fridays and Saturdays, all bath-loving night owls will appreciate it. With far more options than either Kiralyi or Lukacs, you could easily spend three or four hours here flitting from pool to spa to steam room to massage, and it's generally quieter and more relaxing than Szechenyi. This may be the hipster's choice in fact;
you aren't going to meet too many tourists or families here, and the prices are slightly less than the other baths. Probably the draw card of the place, if you don't include the Turkish bath, is a pool on the roof where you can admire the Parliament building and the Danube peacefully slipping by. If you get there early on a sunny day, you can watch the sun rising from over the Danube here - surely one of the best experiences Budapest has to offer. I did this on my last day in the city and it's one I won't forget.
Rating: 8/10. This is the hipster's choice. Mixes good value, fewer people, a good atmosphere and plenty of facilities to be the dark horse of Budapest bath houses.
So, there you have it; a full run-down of arguably the top five bath houses in Budapest. I don't recommend trying to see all of them in one stay; I was there a week and went to one every day, but it's quite draining on your body to go so intensively. Most people go once or twice a week for 1.5-3 hours. A final word of advice: you should acclimatize yourself to the heat of some of these places. The steam rooms can sometimes go up to 80C or more, and the baths can be very hot to - up to 45 degrees normally. You can quickly feel faint in such temperatures if you're not used to it. Take plenty of water, and have plenty of cold showers to cool off. Otherwise, don't be afraid to take the dip!
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